Independent schools are the franking credits of education. It’s time to defund them.

by Dan Hogan

 

Amongst the ideological spittle that has been sprayed around during this election campaign is the claim by Scott Morrison that the next government will impact the next ten years of the nation’s policy outcomes. And he’s right.

 

According to Scott Morrison, the coalition will be “maintaining the historic role of the Australian Government as the majority funder of non-government schools” by funding private schools across the country to the tune of $181.6 billion between 2018 and 2029.

 

Implied by the Morrison government is that they will also continue to grow the chasm of inequality of resources in education by funding public schools far less than private schools — $128.8 billion from 2018 to 2029. It doesn’t take a grammar-school-educated economist or a thinktank to work out that independent schools are receiving vastly more taxpayer dollars ($52.8 billion to be exact).

 

Conservative governments have made a motza for their mates off the back of justifying the shrinking and freezing of the welfare state. “Live within your means”, they said. Conservative rhetoric has for so long beguiled and energised their base with tales of urban legends. The mythical ‘dole bludger’ is the quintessential creepypasta for rich people. The slenderman that haunts the moral panics of the conservative wealthy. So much so, that it is possible their tinfoil hats have fused to their skulls and the aluminum content has poisoned their morality. “If you have a go, you get a go,” they said.

 

This of course would be true if every Australian was born into the magical fantasy land described by conservative rhetoric. The magical fantasy land in which everyone commences their schooling at the same economic starting line and comes out the other end with six-figure jobs after “working hard”.

 

I work as a public primary school teacher. Every day I have the displeasure of driving past one of Sydney’s most prestigious elite expensive independent schools. Fancy cars park up, hurried students stuff their Macbook Airs into their backpacks, and non-public buses line the road. It is a stark contrast to the reality of hideously under-resourced public schools in Western Sydney, (or anywhere for that matter) in which teachers are constantly dipping into their own paypackets to buy the bare minimum resources to make a classroom function: pencils, pens, books, and in some cases even desks.

 

The 42%.

 

According to the Independent Schools Council of Australia, 42 per cent of their funding comes from taxpayer dollars. So why do these schools get a lion’s share of public funds? Remembering these are private schools that lock-out anyone who can’t afford the annual fees of $20,000 to $100,000. Why on earth would anyone send their kids to an independent schools when public schools exist? Weird flex, but okay.

 

And it is a flex. Culturally, independent schools exist as a status symbol amongst middle and upper class communities. While they would never admit it, instead opting for the tired rhetoric of “independent schools are better”. Part of the function of a neoliberal independent school is to undermine the public system. These schools are essentially gated communities of locked-up wealth; the flag bearers of classist inequality. But still, why do they receive so much as a cent of taxpayer dollars? Why are these private businesses not caned with the same “live within your means” stick that the working class is all-too-familiar with?

 

On a base-level, if your private business model requires billions of taxpayer dollars to stay afloat then it is not a sustainable enterprise. Independent schools are haemorrhaging public funds and for what? Wide brimmed hats and ugly blazers? So middle and upper class families can “protect” their kids from sharing a classroom with poor people?

 

Independent schools are the franking credits of education.

 

The public funding independent schools receive is a subsidy for the rich — a credit — and they don’t need it. If a private school isn’t viable without public funding, it’s business model is exploitive. These schools/businesses rely on the taxpayer dollars generated by working class people who are paid significantly less than their middle and upper class counterparts. And yet, these parents work the same hours, work just as hard, and want the best for their family. Turns out the neoliberal agenda was the boogeyman all along.

 

Independent schools are multi-billion dollar private businesses which strictly cater to the wealthy. They are niche but you wouldn’t think so by looking at the slab of public funding they receive. An analysis of school finance data compiled by ABC News in late 2018 and updated in March 2019 also confirmed how a majority of independent schools receive significantly more government funding than actual government schools. It is sadly stunning how the standardised percentages set by conservative powerbrokers work to make the rich richer in education resources and the working class and poor poorer in education resources. And yet more than twice as many students attend public schools as private schools. This means a majority of the school-age population are being ripped off in order to fund the wealthy minority.

 

The problem with “cheapo” Catholic schools.

 

The private and semi-private schools comprising the Catholic system are a different kettle of fish when compared to the cosmic juggernaut of money bags that are independent schools. School fees for a Catholic school start at around $2000 per year — significantly cheaper than your average independent school. The cultural and economic problems stemming from Catholic schools are two-fold. 1. Economic: They still receive a huge amount of public funding; it is noted that some Catholic schools do cater to lower ‘socioeconomic’ families. 2. Cultural: So called “cheapo” Catholic schools trick working class families into making sacrifices to send their kids to such schools based on the flimsy promises of a “better education” and “good Christian values”. In performing this trick, public education is undermined and workers are out of pocket, forced to tighten their belts.

 

Hard neoliberalism versus soft neoliberalism. A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.

 

The last ten years has seen wages growth go nowhere and the welfare state turned hostile. It comes as no surprise then that funding for public schools has also been skimmed and kicked around. According to an analysis of data collected by the Productivity Commission by the Grattan Institute, as of today a public school student gained $155 of public funding over the last decade while a private school student gained $1429 of public funds.

 

This is a historical failure of both Coalition governments (hard neoliberalism) and Labor governments (slightly softer neoliberalism).

 

If either of the old parties were serious about applying the Gonski report’s recommendations relating to “needs-based funding”, they would start by defunding private schools. They don’t need it. For independent schools, public funds are a gift, a bonus, a new swimming pool and tennis court — not a need.

 

On the surface, Labor’s approach to repairing the resource shortage in public education is sound in spirit but vague in promise. The ALP has pledged to restore the coalition’s cuts and to pump what it calls an “additional” $14 billion into public schools over ten years. Considering the extra $52.8 billion planned to flow into independent schools, there is nothing “additional” about this funding. It is still not enough.

 

This so-called extra cash comes with the caveat that teachers and schools make and meet “ambitious targets”. Even the last ten years is anything to go by, when a government says “ambitious targets” what they mean is holding teachers to an impoverished work/life balance so they can conduct strict and onerous statistical work.

 

Labor has promised 13,000 extra teachers. Not the worst idea, but it remains unclear what the purpose of this boost in teacher numbers is planned to achieve. It’s worth remembering that throwing more teachers at NAPLAN won’t improve data. Labor’s plan to tweak university entry scores to attract “higher quality” teachers is a recipe for a teacher shortage. Afterall, university entry scores are informed by an algorithm incorporating HSC results leveraged by demand for the degree. The less people interested in participating in an education degree, the lower the entry score. Contrived prestige isn’t going to equate “better” teachers or improved resources for public schools. If the two major parties seriously wanted to attract higher quality teachers to the public system, they could start treating public teachers like they are the country’s educators and not the government of the day’s data collectors.

 

Of course, the hard neoliberalism of the Liberal Party wants to tell you it’s “all about choice” when it comes to sending your kids to school. But for a majority of the population there is no choice. Why any government would sponsor the continuation of rich enclaves is beyond all sense of fairness — but, you know, this is a conservative political party that thinks you have to literally be a racehorse to get a fair go. Sorry, Scott. But my next horse will be a clothes horse.

 
 
 

About the author

Dan Hogan is a writer and teacher from San Remo who teaches in Western Sydney. More of Dan’s work can be found at www.2dan2hogan.com. They tweet @packetofchips. Dan is the director of Subbed In.

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